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Strategic Narratives and the Islamic State

Strategic narratives are often-overlooked instruments of war that possess the capability to enhance conventional operations. In a world where presidential candidates proclaim they will “defeat” and “destroy” the Islamic State (ISIL), policy proposals focus on kinetic tactics like drone strikes and massive air and special operations campaigns. These tactics certainly make for great sound bites and headlines, yet they lack the nuance to undermine ISIL’s ability to recruit and deploy forces. Rather than attempt to “defeat” and “destroy” ISIL, policymakers should focus on “managing,” “minimizing,” and “mitigating” the organization. Words matter, and by investing resources into the battle of narratives, policymakers can effectively target ISIL and limit the group’s capabilities.

Image courtesy of Skitterphoto, © 2015.

Image courtesy of Skitterphoto, © 2015.

Airstrikes and commandos are tangible forces in the fight against the Islamic State. Narratives are the intangible forces fighting for legitimacy in the eyes of the world, and those at-risk to radicalization. Effective narratives have two crucial characteristics: they craft or support a credible story explaining the status quo; and couple this story with actionable plans for those who encounter them. For ISIL, their narrative tells a compelling story about persecuted Muslims around the world, and calls on them to unite under their violent interpretation of Islam to strike back in noble resistance. This narrative has become a siren call to the 30,000+ foreign fighters from more than 100 countries, that have traveled to Iraq and Syria since the civil war started in 2011.

Harsh rhetoric from politicians in the United States and Europe accomplishes nothing except strengthening the narrative of the Islamic State. When ISIL decries the persecution of Muslims around the world, the organization benefits from islamophobia and jingoistic rhetoric from the West. With calls to ban Muslim immigration and continuing support of anti-refugee movements, primarily far-right parties vindicate and support the on-going narrative of the Islamic State. Worse yet, the refugee populations that are subject to this rhetoric, are the same populations that ISIL actively seeks to recruit. By continuing this trend, the West is unwittingly crafting a narrative that undermines efforts against ISIL.

Narratives are so easily overlooked, but are crucial to any fight against an opponent. The West can craft a new narrative, one that enhances on-going kinetic operations and undercuts the recruiting efforts of the Islamic State. This narrative should target at-risk communities and foreign fighters. Refugee populations in Europe—particularly France, Germany, and Belgium—include critical communities at risk for radicalization. The Islamic State has adapted a strategy of moving militants into Europe disguised as refugees to plan and assist in terror attacks. Security remains of the utmost importance and the need for vetting asylum seekers is unquestioned. Governments should plan and sponsor programs to help refugees resettle and integrate into their host nations. Hateful rhetoric and refugee populations forming self-contained communities actively increases the risk of radicalization.

“True excellence lies in subduing your enemy without fighting.”

Sun Tzu

The idea of strategic narratives, though often overlooked, can be just as effective as drone strikes and commando raids. Effective narratives neutralize threats before they become enemies. Governments in the West should objectively analyze the narrative they are currently projecting, and seek to craft a new one that will curb the radicalization of citizens and prompt the return of foreign fighters.


Zach Hoyle

Zach is a staffer in the U.S. Senate and graduate student at the U.S. Naval War College. He focuses on terrorism in the Middle East and the return of major power competition in East Asia. He is a graduate of West Virginia University and forever a Mountaineer. You can connect with him on Twitter @zach_hoyle.
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